James Wilson: The Forgotten Golden Boy

Before Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Shola Shoretire, the name on every Manchester United fans’ lips, the next ‘big thing’ to come from the famed Manchester United Academy, was one James Wilson. A Staffordshire boy, at the club since the age of seven, seemingly with all the attributes to be a successful striker for the first team, Wilson was giving every Manchester United fan reason to be excited. So why did it not work out for the young striker? Was it ability, circumstance, or plain bad luck? 

Wilsons introduction to the first team could not have gone any better, in his First Premier league start, under caretaker manager Ryan Giggs, Wilson scored two goals helping United towards a 3-1 win against Hull City. This debut, in front of an Old Trafford crowd who had just witnessed one of the poorest seasons in recent memory of the club in the 2013/14 season, meant that Wilson was soon being heralded as ‘the next big thing’ to come out of the academy.

Scoring against Hull made Wilson the fourth youngest player to score a Premier League goal for Manchester United at the time, at the age of 18 years, five months, and five days, as BBC Sport reported. This record instantly put Wilsons’s name in the limelight as he scored at a younger age that Manchester United legends such as Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, these types of stats and records instantly lead to excitement around a player, which can be easy to not live up to, which in this case is what unfortunately happened to James Wilson. 

The following season promised a fresh start for all players under new manager Louis Van Gaal, a manager who also had a rich history of giving youth players a chance. However, Van Gaal signed Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco leaving Wilson as Manchester United’s fifth choice striker behind Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, and Danny Welbeck.

This led to a very disappointing season for James Wilson, appearing only seventeen times in all competitions, scoring two goals, for a season that was supposed to be his breakthrough, these numbers were disappointing to fans and pundits alike, leading to the ‘golden boy’ shine leaving Wilson and instead being put onto new up and coming players at the club such as new signing Memphis Depay and on loan attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard. Over the course of twelve months James Wilson had gone from Golden Boy, to forgotten prospect. 

To get more playing time and to get back into reckoning with Louis Van Gaal, Wilson went on loan to Brighton in the Championship. Loans have been used by the club for youth prospects with varying results, some can be the making of a player such as James Garner who recently had a stellar season, as Manchester United reported, at Nottingham Forest, others can be more damaging to a player’s confidence, such as Adnan Januzaj’s failed loan move to Borussia Dortmund.

For Wilson, Brighton was valuable in terms of playing time, as he made 25 appearances in a league which is notoriously hard to find your feet in, in terms of goal numbers however, it was still disappointing with him only scoring five goals during the season. Wilson did enough for United to want to keep him on the books, giving him another loan in the Championship, this time to Derby County. 

The loan to Derby County is where most would point to as the moment things really went from bad to worse for Wilson, as after failing to score in his first four appearances for the club, he got a serious knee injury in training. The injury was to his anterior cruciate ligament and led to surgery, which in turn meant a long spell on the side-lines for Wilson, as BBC Sport reported. Derby manager Steve McClaren noted at the time that he was ‘looking forward to working with Wilson’ before his injury, according to BBC Sport.

This could imply that had it not been for the injury, McClaren was a manager who believed in Wilsons’s ability, and had Wilson flourished under him in that season at Derby, his career trajectory could have looked much different. This was the turning point that Wilson would unfortunately never bounce back from, a serious injury and a loan spell cut short meant that the striker was well and truly out of the plans of the Manchester United first team, only two seasons after his breakthrough debut. 

Wilson was sent out on loan twice more by Manchester United, to Sheffield United and Aberdeen respectively, with the latter club securing Wilson on a permanent move after he was released by Manchester United in 2019,with the club reportedly fending off interest from Sunderland to land the striker, as reported by the Daily Mail. This permanent move signalled the end of Wilsons times at Manchester United, a club he had played for since the age of seven, he officially had not broken through to the first team as many had predicted he would during the 2013/14 season.

However, to brand Wilson a failure would be unjust as his name will always be on the record books as being one of the youngest players to score a Premier League goal for Manchester United, and no one can take away his debut goals in front of a packed Old Trafford, something that many academy players dream about and never get the chance to live out. With Wilson now playing his club football at Port Vale after a goalless season at Aberdeen, and a disappointing season at Salford City, with the striker only netting nine goals in twenty-nine appearances, there is still time for him to leave his mark on the game.

Still only 25, the striker has every chance of turning it around and becoming the striker everyone saw glimpses of in the early days of his career. It goes without saying that every Manchester United fan who remembers the 2013/14 season will always wish James Wilson well for being one of few glimmers of hope and excitement during a turbulent time at the club, he will always be one of their own.

Written by Jennifer McCord

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I support Manchester United, the greatest English football team to have ever existed. Bruno Fernandes is the latest in a long line of players with great ability to play for the club. I idolised Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Eric Cantona growing up.